What is shamatha meditation?
_ Shamantha (shi-ne in Tibetan, translated into English variously as 'calm abiding', 'peaceful abiding' or as Alan prefers, 'meditative quiesence') is esteemed in the traditional texts of all Buddhist traditions but it is not exclusively a Buddhist practice; it can be practised by anyone.
It is a way of training the mind to be able to rest in a clear and stable concentration, directed in whichever way the practitioner chooses. Its culmination is an extraordinary state of vivid focus, something utterly beyond the experience of an untrained mind. If our ordinary mind is like a 60 watt light bulb, then the accomplishment of shamatha is like a laser beam: highly refined, subtle, powerful and capable of precise tasks. This is why it is said one must accomplish shamatha in order to train in insight or vipashyana (vipassana) meditation.
Sustained practice in retreat is almost certainly necessary to accomplish shamatha but regular daily practice in the context of a normal, socially engaged way of life will also deliver many benefits.
Shamatha has been practised and accomplished for thousands of years and the experience of many generations of meditators has been recorded in oral and written form. These instructions provide a clear road-map of the milestones or stages a practitioner achieves along the way. Even accomplishing the second of the nine stages of practice is very beneficial for those of us living in the modern world in a culture of chronic distractability.
As Alan Wallace writes in The Attention Revolution:
"No matter where you are starting from, you can benefit from training your attention... the methods can be used to maintain better attention in everyday life, and bring greater professional performance, physical health and emotional well-being."
Shamatha is a very important practice but one that is now sadly overlooked and often misunderstood or subjected to contemporary revision. Alan Wallace is passionate about the importance of developing shamatha and the possibility of achieving it and he has inspired many students all over the world to practice it. His credentials as a scholar, translator and practitioner make him very well qualified to clarify the practice and give practical guidance on how to meditate.
Various articles about this practice (from a Buddhist perspective as well as a Western scientific point of view) can be found here, or download an article by Alan Wallace published in Tricycle magazine.